Taylor Swift at Xcel Energy Center, 9/7/13

Categories: Last Night
Photo by Tony Nelson
Taylor Swift
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Saturday, September 7, 2013

I'll admit, I wasn't prepared for all the red. Yes, I knew Taylor Swift's most recent album was called Red and that this was "The Red Tour" but it hadn't occurred to me that those titles would dictate her fans' dress code quite so literally and, even if it had, I wouldn't have anticipated how overwhelming the results would be until I entered what looked like a particularly excitable Valentine's Day dance at an all-girls K-12 school.

I was even less prepared for the Springsteen-length monologue with which, just two songs in, Swift stopped the show to introduce that album's title cut. She'd already opened with "State of Grace," silhouetted behind a red scrim that fell to reveal the star, stylish in a broad-brimmed hat and those high-waisted shorts about which so, so many people on the internet have so, so many opinions. She'd followed with "Holy Ground," a genuinely openhearted expression of gratitude toward a former lover from a woman better known for her roman à clef kiss-offs.

See Also: Slideshow: Taylor Swift at Xcel Energy Center, 9/7/13

Then she started talking. After the usual cheer-inducing recitation of place names (reaching as far out as "Wisconsin and places like that") her introduction ("I'm Taylor. It's very nice to meet you") was aware enough of its forced casualness to come off as charming as intended. Subsequently the entire arena must have transformed into Terry Gross though, because Swift launched into a discussion of her songwriting process, with a slightly self-deprecating admission that she deals in "feelings and emotions" and an explanation of the role of "analogies and metaphors."

Photo by Tony Nelson

Only gradually did it become evident that Swift was offering her younger fans some touchingly responsible guidance into the emotionally unfamiliar world of her newer, more "grown-up" songs. (And when you see a five-year-old singing "Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you never met" you think maybe some guidance is advisable.) This would be a night of pop as pedagogy, in the service of the clear-eyed romantic worldview of a young woman who presents herself as happily in control of her work life without being uptight about it and her sex life without being gross about it: Love is an exhilarating and terrifying feeling that does not last. The pain it causes is unimaginable but will not ruin your life. It's worth it.

Superstar as concerned, successful older sister -- you could do a lot worse. Granted, this was also a lifelong showbiz careerist's studied performance of decency and earnestness. It maybe struck skeptics as cloying when Swift preceded "Mean," a rejoinder to loudmouth bullies of every persuasion, with a story of how she'd once thought that sort of nastiness ended with high school but soon learned that "meanness is a part of the human condition." But she seemed respectful of the intimacy her fans craved. Her short acoustic-guitar-with-backup set, featuring the boy-baffled "Tell Me Why" and the hopeful blind date "Begin Again," was as human-scaled as superstar performances come.

Photo by Tony Nelson

Then again, nothing makes Swift seem more human than her dancing. After no doubt countless hours of exasperating choreographers, Swift persists in a modified form of hairbrush-as-mic bedroom prancing, marked by moves every wannabe starlet knows: the sudden, sassy hip-jut; the dramatic head snap-back; and, uh, whatever the hell you want to call that thing she does with her left arm. For "You Belong With Me," recast as a girl group number and sounding oddly like the Pointer Sisters' version of "Fire," Swift donned shoulder-length gloves and performed Supremes-styled routines with her female backing singer/dancers. A born star like Beyoncé would have nailed it so precisely as to have inspired awe and dread. Swift's comparative competence was reassuring in its fallibility.

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